Novellas are a fun category; they’re pretty much novels, but I can get through them quicker. Tor Books’s online magazine Tor.com have put out great novellas and in recent years and dominated this category. This is especially noticeable this year, as all six finalists are Tor.com novellas.
Tor.com authors are a diverse lot, and Tor.com stories tend to have good representation, especially when it comes to queer identities. Sarah Gailey and Nino Cipri are both non-binary, and both have non-binary characters in their stories. Nghi Vo has also included a non-binary protagonist in a beautiful Imperial China inspired fantasy world. Meanwhile Tochi Onyebuchi and P. Djèlí Clark are both black men who have written two very different stories about racism in the USA, and we also have the latest instalment of Seanan Mcguire’s Wayward Children, which has always presented us with a diverse cast of characters.
I know this is meant to be a Hugo Award post rather than a Tor.com appreciation post, but since I’m about to review six tor.com novellas, I figure they have earned a shout out. Go to Tor.com if you are looking for shortish fiction with lots of variety. Especially if you want lots of queer representation and fantasy worlds that are not Medieval Europe.
Let’s get reviewing.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
By Nghi Vo
At first I wasn’t sure what exactly was happening in this story, but pretty soon everything fell into place and I began to fall in love with it. It’s a criticism of monarchy and patriarchy, a powerful character study and a triumph of worldbuilding. This is a beautifully written story within a story, and I’m looking forward to reading more from this series.
The Singing Hills universe is a fantasy world that takes inspiration from Imperial China, with so much history and culture hinted at in just this small novella. There are two stories here; the framing story of the cleric Chih and their talking Hoopoe companion, who are on their way to study an important event in a city far away. As they travel, a spell that seals off estates associated with the former Empress In-yo is lifted, and Chih makes a detour to investigate the lakeside house where the Empress spent many years in exile. There she meets Rabbit, In-yo’s former servant, now an old lady. As Chih explores the house, she finds objects that belonged to Empress In-yo, which prompt Rabbit to tell Chih the stories about the objects. Through these little stories, we get the main story about Empress In-yo’s marriage to the cruel Emperor who subjugated her people, her exile after she gave him an heir, and the quiet rebellion that followed.
This story isn’t the standard ‘rightful ruler reclaiming the throne’ story. In-yo is a prisoner, and it takes years to arrange her revenge. With Rabbit telling the story, we also see how important a role the common, unimportant people play in this rebellion, and the cost of their involvment. I think this quote by In-yo sums up the nature of this battle perfectly:
“the war was won by silenced and nameless women.”
There are a lot of other powerful quotes in this story, as it examines the way history remembers events. Who is remembered as great? Who is forgotten? Chih gets the rare chance to find the true history, and I’ll be interested to see if future books in this series show what Chih does with this knowledge. I know that book 2, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is a standalone. There are three other books planned in the series, and I’d be happy with either a direct sequel or more standalones at this point. I just want to be immersed in this world again.
Come Tumbling Down
By Seanan McGuire
This is book 5 in McGuire’s excellent Wayward Children series. This series has some great worldbuilding and a lot of amazing characters that make it special. There are also some books in the series that can be read as standalones for those unable to commit to a 7+ novella series, though this is not one of them. The basic structure of this series is that odd numbered books tell an overarching story about the children at Elenore West’s school as they deal with issues related to their experience with portal fantasy worlds. Meanwhile even numbered books are standalones that tell the story of one (or two) character(s) going into their own portal world.
Whilst Come Tumbling Down will be loved by fans of this series just because it continues the series, I feel that it is the weakest Wayward Children story so far. In this one, we return to the Moors from Down Among the Sticks and Bones. It’s hard to say much about Come Tumbling Down without giving spoilers for Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. I’ll leave it at the gang from the school go to the Moors with Jack to help with the aftermath of Every Heart a Doorway. She needs to do something terrible, and wants her friends there to help and support her. It should have hit me harder than it did. I think having the large supporting cast there took some of the focus away from Jack’s mission. It also felt a bit disappointing, since I couldn’t help compare it to the last time the whole squad went on a quest in Beneath the Sugar Sky, which is so far my favourite book in the series and involved visiting a variety of different worlds. After that, this seemed a bit lacking as a group quest story.
Overall, this is a decent continuation of the series and has some cool stuff in it, but not as special as the other entries have been.
By P. Djèlí Clark
Holy crap this book creeped me out big time. I listened to it as an audiobook, and damn Channie Waits’s narration is perfect.
The concept of this story is completely weird: What if the Ku Klux Klan was infiltrated by Lovecraftian monsters that fed on hate? Some KKK members are literal monsters in human disguises, but Maryse and her gang of mostly black monster hunters can fight them, and Maryse has a magic sword made out of the guilt and sorrow of the Atlantic Slave Trade that can kill them. Also it takes place in 1920s USA, and this big racist movie that existed in real life called Birth of a Nation is actually a spell made by a KKK wizard.
Okay, it sounds crazy said like that, but bear with me. This is a brutal, thoughtful look at what turns people into monsters, and how damaging hate can be. Maryse has been through a lot of trauma, and her character development throughout the horrors of this story is amazing. And there are some real horrors in this story. Body horror, violence, and the villain Butcher Clyde is the creepiest villain I’ve encountered in a ages. Yet all these supernatural horrors don’t trivialize the very real horrors of what the KKK do and the USA’s history of racism and slavery. Next to the monsters in white robes, there are regular people wearing the same robes, and gleefully doing the same things.
I love everything I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark so far, but I think this may be my favourite of his stories. We’ll see soon if his debut novel Master of Djinn dethrones that, but so far Ring Shout is my top pick. He not only writes historical fiction with the skill expected of a professional historian, but he weaves elements of fantasy into his stories perfectly, and now with Ring Shout he shows he is a master of Lovecraftian horror too. As I said, I listened to this as an audiobook. Mostly I listened while driving home from work at midnight. I reached the Butcher Clyde introduction scene while driving through the pitch dark, bush and farm surrounded backroad between my town and the freeway. Perfect ambiance, would definitely recommend.
Upright Women Wanted
By Sarah Gailey
I’ve had mixed experiences with Sarah Gailey’s work. My introduction to their work was the super hyped River of Teeth, the first book in their beloved American Hippo series, which I really disliked. Still, I gave their debut novel, Magic For Liars a go and loved it. With that history, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give Upright Women Wanted a go. With Upright Women being a Western, I felt it was going to read more like River of Teeth.
That said, I did end up liking Upright Women Wanted for the most part. The characterization is good all round, and I liked seeing our protagonist Esther grow and accept herself. Though on the other hand, her insta-love romance with Cye didn’t do much for me. Might have been the fact that a) it was pretty much insta-love on Esther’s part, and b) she meets Cye just a few days after watching her girlfriend be executed. I did like all the characters, and the themes about people who the state doesn’t allow to exist getting together and fighting back. Queer Gunslinging librarians distributing prohibited materials and smuggling people and supplies away from the state is pretty awesome.
The plot was a bit thin though, and some of the most tense and action-packed moments happened because a character who knew she was wanted didn’t hind while going through checkpoints. Also the worldbuilding is a bit lacking. It’s a future where all fuel goes to the military and the Far Right have taken over, and whilst there are some details I liked, I don’t think we see enough of the world. We have no hint of what’s happening outside the USA, or if the war that’s mentioned is against a foreign power or the local resistance, and no mention of how things got to the way they are. Yet we have two characters talking about how the USA is divided up, and which areas were completely militarized, which made me expect more of this background information.
Upright Women Wanted is a fun queer Western adventure, which I did enjoy. Still, not sure if Sarah Gailey has won me over yet. Maybe if I liked Westerns I’d be a huge fan.
By Nino Cipri
When talking about this story with people, I call it the ‘Evil IKEA’ story. I don’t think that’s too accurate though; maybe the ‘Evil Trans-Dimensional Wormhole IKEA’ story would work better.
This is a story about Jules and Ava, who work at a big mazelike furniture store called LitenVärld and who broke up the other day. They’ve been hoping to avoid each other. Then a wormhole opens up in the store and an elderly customer wanders through. Store policy is if no-one volunteers to venture into the wormhole to save the customer, the two employees with the least seniority are sent. (Yes, the store has a wormhole policy. Don’t all stores?) This leads to Jules and Ava being sent out together on this quest.
I loved this a lot. Whilst kids that get sucked into other worlds for adventures can come from anywhere, adults that go on such adventures usually aren’t minimum wage retail workers. The fact that Finna is about retail workers appeals to me greatly because I am also an “unskilled” worker without a university education. I’m not in the retail industry and don’t have to deal with customers, but I still found myself identifying strongly with Jules and Ava.
Also, I just loved how strange this concept was, and the humour inherit in seeing normal people have to go through an IKEA wormhole and fighting carnivorous chairs and zombie hive-mind store assistants. This is the sort of weirdness that I can never get enough of. That combined with great characters and a big fuck you to capitalism and corporate America make this book a winner to me.
The only problem is that it is way too short. Not in an ‘I didn’t want it to end’ way, but in a ‘not enough pages to fully take advantage of the adventure’ type way. We have two characters trying to navigate some complicated changes in their relationship, a critique of the way capitalism treats employees and customers, and an adventure through a multiverse of furniture stores all packed into 92 pages. That’s not enough time to do justice to everything, and I think the multiverse side of things suffers. We only get to see three alternate LitenVärlds, and as cool as they were (especially the ship) I wanted some more crazy adventure.
By Tochi Onyebuchi
I’m going to go against popular opinion here, and just say that I didn’t like this book. It did a lot of things very well. It portrays anger and shows how unjust the criminal justice system is. This book shows some of the ways that institutional racism works. Learning that Onyebuchi once worked as a civil rights lawyer and drew on his own experience for the Riker’s Island portion was actually quite depressing. I hate this world sometimes. This book goes very hard on it’s message, and delivers it well.
Where it falls down for me is in the story structure, and in how the fantastical elements are treated. The story starts out pretty interesting and easy to follow, with little Ella growing up in Compton, surrounded by gang violence and police brutality. She also has this Thing. She can look at people and see their future. She can make things move. This first chapter culminates in Ella’s mother going into labour as a huge riot breaks out. We then have a time skip, the little family is living elsewhere and now Ella’s brother Kev is our viewpoint character. One of the first things he tells us about is how Ella can now explode a rat’s head. From here we jump between Ella and Kev and cover about 20 years of their lives. Kev is arrested and incarcerated at a young age, while Ella keeps getting new powers, including astral projection and the ability to time travel or relive the past. The narrative jumps to different points in their stories, and it gets pretty hard to follow.
Maybe if I re-read it I’d have an easier time following it, but I’m just not interested in doing so. Despite all the passion and anger Onyebuchi packs into this little book, it lost me about halfway through when Ella just started getting new powers. It seems there is nothing she cannot do, and she went from struggling to control things to astral projecting into Kev’s cell and making the guards unable to see his contraband really fast in narrative time. We see some training, but for the sheer versatility and power she has, it wasn’t enough for me. The vagueness of Ella’s Thing and the jump-around narration made it hard for me to stay engaged with this one.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading these novellas, and they all have something special about them. So far Ring Shout has won both the Nebula and the Locus award, and I would not be surprised if it takes out the Hugo as well. I’m getting really excited whenever I start wondering who’s going to win these awards. In a normal year, the awards would have already been handed out, but we’ve still got months to go. Plenty of time for me to talk about the novels.
In the meantime, happy reading,